Is There Rhyme or Reason in Trump’s Approach to Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea?

History News Network

In November 2016, Donald Trump swept to the White House making some bewilderingly simplistic promises, which meant keeping out of foreign wars, and concentrating on dismantling America’s internal power structures to recreate them in his own vision. Three months after taking office, he has ordered two big military attacks on Syria and Afghanistan, both within a week. And he is warning of retaliation against North Korea’s maverick leadership.

The start of the Trump administration has been chaotic. He is having to fight hard to implement his plans, especially health care and immigration. He has found that his dehumanizing anti-Hispanic and anti-Muslim rhetoric since his presidential campaign began in June 2015 will be problematic, and slow, to turn into reality.

Hence, Trump has turned his domestic frustration abroad at a dangerously early stage. It took President George W. Bush seven months, and the traumatic events of 9/11, to go on the warpath. Trump has not completed his first hundred days yet.

Donald Trump’s foremost targets are the Muslim world and North Korea. Like al-Qaida during the Bush administration (2001–2009) Trump singles out ISIS, an umbrella for many dispersed violent groups of Sunni fundamentalists, for the ills emanating from the Muslim world, and threatening civilization. He is also consumed by North Korea and its advancing nuclear weapons program. China, North Korea’s ally, has come under fierce criticism from Trump for not restraining the Pyongyang regime, and for manipulating its own currency to steal American jobs.

The Trump administration saw President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his Russian patrons as useful tools in fighting ISIS. The decision to hit the Shayrat airbase with cruise missiles three days after a chemical attack was reported in the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun was a policy reversal by Trump.

One noteworthy aspect of the American attack on Shayrat was that while other Syrian facilities were hit at the airbase, the runways which Russia had expanded in 2015, and which Russian warplanes currently use, were spared. Within hours, bombers were flying new missions against anti-Assad forces. The attack on the Syrian airbase also helped Trump counter domestic criticisms of close ties with Putin and the Kremlin lobby, though it was not enough to stop new revelations.

To say that mutual accusations of recent days between the White House and the Kremlin amount to a phony war would be an exaggeration. For domestic political reasons, some tension with America’s foremost nuclear adversary serves a useful purpose, and the Trump administration is learning about political expediency. Nonetheless, Trump’s personal esteem for Vladimir Putin is obvious, and his language about the Russian leader and government is restrained.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to Moscow was full of warnings on both sides, but they were civil to each other. And Tillerson had a two-hour meeting with Putin. The relationship between Washington and Moscow may not be what President Trump would have instinctively wanted. But to say that it is at the lowest point is way over the top. US-Soviet relations were near a catastrophically low point all along from the early 1950s to the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s.

The change in Trump’s approach to China is also intriguing. He had predicted a “very difficult” meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping (April 6-7). Yet, after their state dinner and talks, Trump announced that they had made “tremendous progress,” and that they were going to have a “great relationship.” Trump made no mention of China the currency manipulator, causing a massive trade surplus in Beijing’s favor. On North Korea, Trump said that President Xi had explained the situation, and that he was confident that China would do something.

Trump’s manner of telling the Chinese President over chocolate cake that cruise missiles were on their way to hit Syria was strange and amusing. If the idea was to deliver a shock to his guest over sweet dish, it seemed not to have worked. China gave its verdict soon after Xi had returned home, with the state news agency, Xinhua, calling it “the act of a weakened politician who needed to flex his muscles.” The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, phoned his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, offering to coordinate with the Kremlin to “cool” the escalating row. Trump had managed to push China and Russia closer.

The United States, meanwhile, sent warships to the region. Not to be left behind, North Korea showed off new missiles in a huge military parade in Pyongyang to celebrate the 105th anniversary of its founding leader Kim Il-sung. As American warships were sailing in the region, North Korea test-fired another missile. It failed, but there may well be more to follow.

As President Trump deals with Syria and North Korea, the stakes are high because of Russian and Chinese involvement. Afghanistan has no such risks. Nearly ten thousand US troops are already deployed in the country, and the Kabul government is totally dependent on American military protection and economic assistance.

Like the cruise attack on Syria, Trump’s decision to drop a 22000 pound GBU-43 bomb (called the Mother of All Bombs) on a network of caves in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan filled him with excitement. It also generated considerable enthusiasm among journalists and analysts in the media.

The instant flurry of excitement aside, the bombing deserves a critical examination of facts which are often ignored. The underground caves were built for, and by, the Mujahideen forces, who received massive support from the administration of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s – the decade in which the United States fought a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Those fractious Mujahideen groups disintegrated, and new recruits were attracted, giving rise to the Taliban. They, in turn, found common cause with al-Qaida in opposing the United States. Following the assassination of Osama bin Laden, elements of al-Qaida morphed into ISIS. The collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, meant that more fighters were free to join ISIS.

President Trump called the bombing of the cave complex in Afghanistan “another success,” which made him “very proud” of American military. His administration first claimed that 36 ISIS militants had been killed in the attack. Afghan officials later said that more than 90 people had died.

Contrary to Arab countries, ISIS has found it difficult to establish a firm foothold in Afghanistan, where Afghan nationalism comes in direct conflict with pan-Arab Islamism. Consequently, ISIS-Khorasan (Afghanistan’s old name) is a small group compared to the Taliban – estimated to be no more than a few hundred. ISIS fighters include some disgruntled former Taliban, some new recruits, even fewer Arabs.

It prompted the Economist newspaper to say that although President Trump relishes headlines about his success, the significance of bombing in Afghanistan should not be “overstated as a military game-changer.” In 2001, the predecessor of the GBU-43 bomb (BLU-83) was used against the Taliban in the Tora Bora cave network. But the Taliban survived, have since thrived, and would make it very difficult for the present Afghan government to survive without American protection.

Since the early days of the Cold War in the 1950s, we have witnessed plenty of theatrics from rival leaders with narcissistic tendencies. History tells us about Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-sung. But theatrics can go wrong, and can lead to disastrous unintended consequences.

We have entered a new era of dangerous theatrics in international politics. Donald Trump and Kim Il-sung are the two leading actors. Let us hope that the rest of the cast will exercise a restraining influence.

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Theresa May: Walking the Kingdom Down a Dark Alley

CounterPunch

Things are rocky on both sides of the Atlantic. In Washington, Donald Trump’s presidency, barely a month old, has made a chaotic start, and is getting sucked into ever deeper crisis. In London, Theresa May, prime minister of the United Kingdom which looks deeply split, is about to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Thus she will begin the process of Britain leaving the European Union and its associated institutions.

In the midst of rancor between an infant presidency and its detractors, the White House meeting of May and Trump, seen hand in hand, was an extraordinary and rare demonstration of mutual love only a week after trump’s inauguration. A month on, it seems a long time ago.

Let us remind ourselves about what has happened in the past month. Donald Trump came to Washington promising to “drain the swamp.” The exodus of officials from numerous federal departments and agencies that keep the United States government functioning has been dramatic. Instead, Trump has created his own little swamp, which he has found difficult to fill.

First, the National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced out after revelations that he had held telephone conversations with the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, while President Barack Obama was still in office and Flynn was in Trump’s transition team. That in one telephone conversation Flynn discussed the sanctions President Obama had imposed on the same day was bad enough. What sealed Flynn’s fate was that he then lied to Vice President Mike Pence, who then publicly defended Flynn saying that there had been no discussion with the Russian ambassador about the sanctions.

Flynn was also interviewed by the FBI soon after Trump’s inauguration, and had given a similar account to the agency. Following leak after leak, speculation has become relentless that over the past year other Trump associates have had constant and repeated dealings with the Russians. President Trump’s plan to appoint a friendly individual as intelligence supremo to investigate and identify sources responsible for leaks shows how much the working relationship between the White House and the intelligence services has broken down. The consequences of this breakdown for Britain’s formidable intelligence headquarters GCHQ could be serious in the light of the UK’s disengagement from the European Union.

Second, Andrew Puzder, billionaire CEO of a fast-food restaurant chain, withdrew his nomination as Trump’s Labor Secretary because of intense criticism of him in the Senate prior to his confirmation hearings. Third, Trump’s choice to refill the national security adviser’s post, Robert Harward, turned down the offer despite the president’s repeated efforts to persuade him. And then, David Petraeus, once a celebrated army general, dropped out of the race for Trump’s national security adviser.

Petraeus has been on probation after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge after revelations of an extramarital affair and mishandling of classified material with his lover. It is as clear as daylight that President Trump is beleaguered and faces struggle to establish his authority like few of his predecessors.

For Prime Minister Theresa May to fly to Washington within a week of Trump’s inauguration was both an act of political expediency and perilous haste. He was mercifully courteous before television cameras. She was anxious to say, again and again, that she was there to “renew the special relationship” between the United States and Britain. She boasted in front of cameras that she had secured President Trump’s full commitment to NATO in private talks. Right up to his election, Trump had described NATO as obsolete, and threatened to reduce Washington’s commitment to defending smaller, more vulnerable countries of the alliance if they did not spend more money on defense.

Trump remained silent on the matter while his guest went ahead to announce that the American president had given a firm commitment to NATO. Barely two weeks later, Trump’s Defense Secretary, James Mattis, taking Trump’s original line, said that unless other alliance members spent more, America would “moderate” its commitment to their defense. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s blunt response was that Germany would not accelerate its existing, long-term plan to gradually increase military spending despite America’s demand to do so by the end of 2017.

Vice President Mike Pence immediately picked up where Mattis had left, making clear that he was delivering Donald Trump’s message. Apparently referring to Germany, France and Italy, the American Vice President said, “Some of our largest allies do not have a credible path.  The time has come to do more.”

So, we have turmoil in Washington; unprecedented tensions between the United States and NATO; and the European Union. Nonetheless, Britain’s Prime Minister looks determined to make a clean break from the European Union and all its institutions, and follow Trump’s America. It is a dangerous path.

Less than a year ago, Theresa May advocated Britain’s continued membership of the EU that gave the country access to the world’s largest market. Now, she is a passionate leader who will lead Britain out of the European Union and its economic, social, environmental and judicial instruments. She will accept estrangement from immediate European neighbors, but much greater reliance on a superpower governed by an isolationist, unpredictable president more than three thousand miles away across the Atlantic.

She will explore the “brave new world” more than half a century after Britain lost its empire, and ceased to rule the oceans. All with a small army and naval force smaller than those of the United States, Russia, China and Japan, and only slightly bigger than the French navy. Britain has nuclear weapons, but it cannot conceivably use them without America’s consent.

A country is never more vulnerable than when there is just one guarantor and not enough room for manoeuvre.

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The Trump Upheaval

The Citizen

It is important to remember that although Donald Trump was the Republican nominee in the 2016 United States presidential election, in reality he is an independent billionaire who likes to act alone. He demands absolute loyalty from those who depend on him.

Throughout his business career, Trump befriended politicians on both sides, including Bill and Hillary Clinton. He is emotional and picks personal fights easily. In this year’s election, he took on the Republican Party’s machinery and defeated it in the primary campaign to snatch the nomination before winning the presidency against Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent.

Trump’s victory was made possible by a white middle-class backlash in rural America and a ceaseless right-wing campaign of vilification against President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and immigrants of Muslim and non-European heritage. The acronym MMM (Mexican, Muslim, Misogyny) described the core of his campaign. Many leading Republicans dissociated themselves from Trump. But his tactics clearly worked, thus confirming deep-seated prejudices in parts of America.

Much is being made of the fact that the United States will have a Republican-controlled Senate, House of Representatives and the White House for the first time in more than 30 years. To what extent will there be unanimity between the executive and legislative branches after the initial period is by no means certain. Congress takes its constitutional responsibility in the system of checks-and-balances very seriously.

President Trump will face challenges from Capitol Hill and other quarters after he and the Republican-controlled Congress have reversed many of President Obama’s executive orders and begun moves to overturn legislative acts of the Obama presidency.

Senator Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton’s challenger in the Democratic primary campaign and a politician of substantial grassroots following, has already warned. Sanders said: “To the degree that Mr Trump pursues policies that improve the lives of working families, we will work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has threatened to see Trump in court if he tries to implement his policies which the organisation has called not simply un-American and wrong-headed, but unlawful and unconstitutional.

These include Trump’s proposals to forcibly deport about 11 million undocumented immigrants; ban on the entry of Muslims into the United States and heavy surveillance of those in the country; punish women who seek abortion; re-authorise torture, including waterboarding; and change libel laws and restrict freedom of expression.

These, the ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said, violate several amendments to the US Constitution. For instance, the First Amendment (free exercise of religion and freedom of speech), Fourth (protection against unreasonable searches and seizures), Fifth (protection against self-incrimination), Eighth (imposition of excessive bail, cruel and unusual punishment) and 14th (equal protection under the law).

Challenges to Trump will also come from ordinary citizens. Within hours of the election result becoming clear, anti-Trump demonstrations had erupted in towns and cities across America.

In the light of his pledges, President-elect Trump is going to have a big agenda. Reversing all of President Obama’s executive orders can be done immediately, but dealing with the consequences will require a lot more. If Trump attempts to start mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, many of them living in America in shockingly poor conditions, there will be court battles for years. Questions will arise about their children born in the United States, with citizenship rights. And there will be long court battles over access to abortion for women.

President Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act gave insurance cover to an estimated 20 million American citizens and residents for the first time. Trump has pledged to repeal the law, but that pledge is vague. A hostile Congress, determined to erase the Obama legacy, has already made more than 50 unsuccessful attempts to repeal the law. The coming Trump administration may well succeed. But what will replace the Affordable Healthcare Plan? Failure to find an alternative would cause a social crisis affecting the poorest and most vulnerable sections of American society.

Trump’s promise to rebuild America’s infrastructure will cost an estimated one trillion dollars. The country’s national debt is nearly 20 trillion and Congress has many times blocked President Obama’s spending proposals, raising fiscal objections. How will President Trump manage to borrow more, cut taxes for relatively affluent people, and keep Congress happy, all at the same time? Trump says he is impatient to move quickly. Congress takes its own time.

Changes on the international scene will be dramatic, blunt and palpable. Trump is a climate change denier. He has promised to sweep away the Paris climate accord which came into effect only a few days ago; and Obama’s emission reduction policy, painstakingly put together during his presidency. Trump’s description of global warming as “bullshit” and a “Chinese-invented hoax” explains it all. Leading climate researchers say it may become impossible to stabilize planetary warming below dangerous levels.

Donald Trump’s recent comments on NATO, and his admiration for Vladimir Putin, have sent shock-waves throughout the Western alliance. Article 5 of the NATO treaty says that an attack on any member-state will be treated as an attack on the whole alliance, and will trigger an automatic collective response.

Trump has said that he would defend NATO member-states from invasion only if he deemed that they had “fulfilled their obligations to us”. In another remark, he went further, suggesting that NATO was obsolete, and he would not mind if the alliance broke up.

Trump wants to invest in building the US armed forces in his drive to make America great again. He would leave allies to fend for themselves. He has suggested that it would be fine if Japan and South Korea developed nuclear weapons to deter China and North Korea respectively. Such a policy would be a recipe for uncontrolled nuclear proliferation. Trump has also said that he and Vladimir Putin are stable mates; that “highly respected” Putin has done great things for his country; and he would get along fine with the Russian leader.

Beneath all the diplomatic niceties, worries in Britain and the rest of Europe are mounting, because Europe’s and Trump’s visions are at odds in crucial areas. Trump admires Putin and Russia, Europe fears them; he regards NATO as obsolete, Europe sees the organization as indispensable for defence; Trump is a climate change denier, Europe sees global warming as a threat; he is a protectionist who wants to “bring back jobs” from abroad, but Europe believes in international trade; Trump would impose heavy tariffs on Chinese imports and confront China, Europe wants free trade. The list of disagreements is long.

Successive British governments have laid emphasis, too much at times, on a “special relationship” with the United States. President-elect Donald Trump has just put that relationship in a more realistic context that ought to trigger a serious revaluation in London and in other European capitals.

Only when had Trump spoken to 10 foreign leaders (those of Mexico, Ireland, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, India, Australia, Japan and South Korea) did he find time to take a congratulatory call from Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom.

Those who thought that Ronald Reagan’s and George W Bush’s presidencies were periods of great upheaval would be wise to brace themselves against much more in the coming Trump presidency.

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The Second Presidential Debate, 2016

After the first debate that many saw as a victory for the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, the second last night (October 9, 2016) was bound to be different. Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, had made clear almost immediately that he had been nice to Hillary by his own standards, and that he would be much more aggressive next time. The leak of a tape of lewd remarks about women before last night’s second debate brought further pressure on Trump, and led to a number of Republicans withdrawing support from Trump. This undoubtedly made him angry, and he wanted revenge.

It began when, at a press conference, the Trump campaign presented women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault in the past, and invited them to the debate as guests. Donald Trump thus used his ultimate weapon to derail Hillary Clinton. With one insincere word of apology, Trump dismissed his remarks as “locker room talk” before asserting that her husband’s sins were far more serious. He was quickly on to ISIS, Hillary’s own “crimes”, and her deletion of e-mails. Trump said that if he won the presidency, he would appoint a special prosecutor, and she would go to jail. He does not know, or does not care, that the Justice Department and attorney general are independent. And presidents do not order them to throw opponents in jail in the United States.

These were very uncomfortable moments for Hillary Clinton, but she endured them with her usual poise. How many women and undecided voters would have been influenced by Trump’s tactics is by no means certain. My view is not many. Did Trump prepare this time? Yes. Was he successful in unsettling Hillary Clinton? Of course. Was it a more even debate? Perhaps. But with what effect is the critical question.

On other topics – the economy, Syria, Iraq and ISIS and Muslim migrants – there was hardly anything new in either candidate’s arguments. On foreign policy, security, economy and health care, Trump remains a dismal failure in giving any details of his plans while Hillary Clinton succeeds, whether people agree with her or not. On Libya and Syria, her hawkish views as secretary of state in the first Obama term leave questions which are awkward and unanswered.

Despite a bad week leading up to last night’s debate, Donald Trump is still standing. If some of his committed supporters feel that he therefore won, let it be so. On the other hand, if events of the past week, his boorish, unrepentant behaviour have failed to attract any more votes, then Donald Trump is the loser. RealClearPolitics is worth a look.

We now have the third and final debate in ten days’ time in Los Vegas, Nevada.

[END]

The First Presidential Debate, 2016

The first of three United States presidential debates (September 26, 2016) between the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, and her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, was noteworthy in several respects. Frank exchanges are to be expected on these occasions, but this debate had the unique stamp of Donald Trump. He was aggressive and impetuous – qualities which have long been Trump’s hallmark. Facts do not matter for him, and this was seen again last night. Hillary Clinton came well prepared. She denied some of her opponent’s claims, and pointed her audience to FactCheck.Org to verify other assertions.

Donald Trump’s best moments came and went in the first 40 minutes. His most effective attack concerned globalization and the loss of American jobs to Mexico, China and other low-wage economies. During his eight years as president in the 1990s, the expansion of America’s markets was high on Bill Clinton’s agenda. Trump began, then repeatedly accused her for wrecking the US economy, but had few facts or statistics to press home the point. President Barack Obama, in whose administration Hillary was secretary of state for four years, took significant steps to protect the US auto and banking sectors from collapse. No acknowledgement of that. He is usually full of himself, at one point asserting that he has a superior temperament than Hillary Clinton.

Trump counter-attacked every time his own record came under scrutiny. Why had he not released his tax returns so far? Trump replied that he would release them when Hillary Clinton published her thirty-three thousand deleted e-mails. And he tried to explain the retreat from his accusations about where President Obama was born to the acceptance that Obama was American by birth asserting that he had forced the president to produce his birth certificate. Trump took credit for it. He is usually full of himself, at one point asserting that he has a superior temperament than Hillary Clinton.

All politicians use spin. The first debate showed that Hillary Clinton was well prepared, had mastery over facts and her answers were nuanced. Trump was blunt and pandering to prejudices. Against available facts, he spoke of “gangs of illegal immigrants with guns” roaming America’s inner-cities. So he promised that as president he would make sure that “law and order” were maintained. Towards the end, the debate switched to security. Trump was exhausted by then, his answers becoming increasingly incoherent.

Most commentators, including conservative analysts, were of the view that Hillary Clinton won the first debate. Will it change voting intentions? For fervent Trump backers, “No” is the answer. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton’s support is likely to become more firm. As for uncommitted, including those reluctant to support Clinton, there are two more debates to help them make up their minds.

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